The Winds of Khalakovo

The Winds of Khalakovo
Bradley P. Beaulieu

We are once again digging into stuff I should have reviewed long ago. The Winds of Khalakovo was right at the top of my 2013 Must Read List, so I dutifully found a copy and read it over two or three days in early spring. I had a great time with the book and was bursting with things to say in a review when I finished; sadly for all involved, Khalakovo slipped further and further down the queue. Now here we sit at the end of summer, or at least the end of summer in the soggy northern climes, and I’m trying to remember all the fun things I wanted to write.

A bit of background first. I found out about Beaulieu some time ago when another favorite author, Aliette de Bodard, recommended his and Stephen Gaskell’s sf novella Strata. It was then offered in a giveaway on the excellent Far Beyond Reality blog, which was how I met FBR’s proprietor. I won it, then read, and reviewed it here. Beaulieu’s main work at the time of writing is the Lays of Anuskaya series, of which Khalakovo is the first. (The third volume got tied up in the ongoing-but-mostly-solved debacle at Nightshade Books, but is available from the author. That is a happy thing, since I would probably be outside the Nightshade office with a torch and pitchfork if denied the final resolution of the story.) Anuskaya is built on a foundation of Russian and Slavic culture, rather than the typical Western European, so there are going to be differences for those used to typical epic fantasy. I have no idea how “authentic” any of this is; Beaulieu could write about magical pandas gamboling across the taiga, call it Russian, and I would just nod my head wisely and keep reading.

The heart of Khalakovo is the world building. (The other heart, because this is a multi-hearted creature, is the swashbuckling, but that is a discussion for later.) Beaulieu’s creation has to rate near the top of recent fantasy, because Anuskaya is such a unique, intriguing world. The relationship between Khalakovo and the other duchies, each of them windswept, mountainous islands, is politically convincing. The windships are a tad extravagant, but well worth the extra magic and suspension of disbelief required to appreciate them. The conflict between the Landed and the Aramahn is also fascinating, mirroring more familiar colonial-aboriginal relations in our world. Finally, I wonder if the Maharraht, a fanatical, terrorist offshoot of the Aramahn, are purposely modeled on the PLO, or if those associations just come naturally because the Middle East is so prevalent in the news.

In spite of the complex political situation, two complimentary magic systems, several viewpoint characters, and an unconventional setting, Beaulieu refrains from indiscriminate info dumping. We learn about the world primarily by watching the characters in action, picking up important plot points from their eyes, rather than one person facing another and saying, “As you know Bob, when I cast this spell…” The author asks his readers to take him on faith, trusting that all will become clear in time. This isn’t an ideal approach for everyone it seems, but I enjoy it when a book respects my intelligence. It’s a delicate tightrope of course, since too little explanation leaves everyone confused, but too much hand holding is boring. For me, Beaulieu juggles things perfectly. Reasonable minds will differ, but anyone willing to take the leap should find their questions resolved by the end.

Moving on to the other heart, let’s talk about the buckles that are swashed. There are windships, demons, plagues, terrorists, assassinations, backstabbing, betrayals, and dancing. Beaulieu has said in interviews that he tries to keep some bit of action, or at least tension, on every page; the book is almost bursting at the seams with excitement. The last third or so barrels along like a maglev train, dispatching obstacles in a similar fashion to a locomotive humming along at 300 miles per hour. If those obstacles happen to include one’s dinner, or an insistent child, or crucial test preparation, well, Bradley P. Beaulieu makes no apologies. If volume two had been waiting for me on my bookshelf, I would have read nothing else until it too was complete. (It was not, and various commitments ambushed me, but I will be getting to it soon.)

Khalakovo is some of the best fantasy I have read this year. Regular readers will know that I appreciate my books to be off-kilter, political, and rational, so it’s no surprise that Khalakovo meets with my approval. It won’t be too long before I mow down the second and third books in the series; my biggest hope after that is that Beaulieu takes another stab at science fiction. That would make me a happy camper.

Rating: The 2008 Russian National Team. Led by Andrei Arshavin, the Russians smashed their way to the semi-finals of the Euro, humbling the highly fancied Dutch along the way (boo), before finally going down in glorious defeat to ascendant Spain. Khalakovo doesn’t go down in defeat to anything, but does dazzle unexpectedly and involve vodka.

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Yukikaze

Yukikaze
Kambayashi Chohei

I am really behind on this one. I finished Yukikaze back in the spring, but got sidetracked by read-alongs, commitments of one sort or another, gender equality issues, and a touch of real life. There’s six months gone. Further, Yukikaze is one of the first titles published by Japanese pipeline Haikasoru, in 2010, but I didn’t get a copy until an Amazon gift certificate fell into my hands back in March. (No library copies here, which is somewhat inexplicable considering the two massive library systems I have access to, plus a private Japanese collection downtown.) This in turn is a translation of the 2002 revision of the 1984 book, Sento Yosei Yukikaze (戦闘妖精・雪風). It is probably just as well that the English version chopped off the first two words, “battle fairy,” and kept only the name of the aircraft in the title. To sum up, a six month late review of a three year old translation of a twenty year old book. Breaking news this is not.

Kambayashi is a well-regarded, multi-award winning author; Yukikaze is probably his most famous book. It won the Seiun Award for 1984, spawned a sequel (also available from Haikasoru, but as yet unread by either of the Two Dudes), and an anime adaptation. I would not be surprised to find manga, video game, or other spin-offs, but do not currently know of any. It is often ranked on annual lists of the best ever Japanese science fiction and I have seen it recommended several times as a place for Westerners to start with Japan’s non-animated SF.

It is difficult to dig too deeply into the plot here without spoiling much of the fun. The following, however, is clear at the outset: Aliens called “JAM” have invaded the Earth through a portal over Antarctica. The combined Terran military beat them back through the portal to a world called “Faery,” where the two sides are locked in a violent stalemate. JAM are being held at bay, but humanity is unable to push them any further. (I have no idea what JAM stands for, the Japanese is equally vague, and I am just assuming it means Jerkface Alien Menace.) Faery has enough messed up flora and fauna that ground troops are an impossibility; everything is fought in the air. Fukai Rei is attached to a special air force division whose sole responsibility is to record everything that happens in every battle and return the data to headquarters. His airplane is called Yukikaze.

Things unfold through sequential short stories, all but a couple told from Rei’s point of view. While each is a discreet event, and frequently not connected to the others in any obvious way, they should be read in order. Kambayashi is covertly sketching out an arc for three agents: Rei, Yukikaze, and JAM. It really wouldn’t do to say much beyond this, save that things don’t end up where one might expect. In fact, very little of the book follows expectations. Everything about Yukikaze screams Military SF, what with the alien invasions, semi-sentient fighting machines, and elite warriors, until one starts reading. Rei’s role demands a cold distance, a mindset that prevents insanity in a job that usually means watching passively as fellow soldiers die. Kambayashi mimics this in his writing, with a sterile, deadpan delivery.

I don’t totally know what to make of the book. If there is a Message buried in there somewhere, I missed it. I detected no gripping narrative either; there is action to be sure, but somehow it is not pulse-pounding. The conflict with JAM reminds me a bit of the Cold War, which had ramped up again when Kambayashi wrote Yukikaze. The war between two more or less equal forces, carried on far from the everyday view of squabbling humanity, has certain analogues to the proxy wars fought in otherwise inconsequential places like Angola or Nicaragua. There is no pacifist agenda here though, somewhat surprising for a Japanese book about war, just a dispassionate look at what might happen as increasingly sophisticated weapons fight each other. In fact, this has the feel of a scientific experiment about it, with all superfluous variables removed. Kambyashi might be testing his ideas of AI and humanity under pressure in an otherwise perfectly controlled environment.

I suspect that I am making Yukikaze sound less interesting than it actually is. The superficially dry prose conceals much more than I expected, driving a subtle but comprehensive evolution throughout the story. It is rather like listening to Minimalist classical music, wherein the observer starts in one place and, without realizing it, is deposited someplace completely different at the end. If there is anything “Japanese” about Kambayashi’s writing, it would be this restraint, though I am not so heavy-handed as to compare the book to a Zen garden or bonsai tree. (The Japanese have no more monopoly on restraint or subtlety than we Americans do to fatty food. Exhibit A: Morning Musume.) It’s a fascinating trip though, with details, unexpected turns, and subtle insights growing up organically from the story’s foundation.

One has to take Yukikaze on its own terms, but I give the book a strong recommendation. It is another essential part of the Japanese SF canon, so there’s that. It’s also a unique creation, something that I can’t easily draw comparisons to. The closest tale that comes to mind is The Sky Crawlers, also an oddly disconnected look at Japanese air forces. Either of the above are reason enough to give it a shot, together they make a compelling case for universal consumption. I am eager to see what others thing about it.

Rating: Claudio Ranieri, a stoic, restrained manager who found great success with Juventus. (No relation between Italian match fixing and Kambayashi Chohei though.)

The Dragon’s Path

The Dragon’s Path
Daniel Abraham

I hadn’t intended to read this book just yet. For one, I try to avoid starting into any series currently in progress. I don’t want to wait for forthcoming volumes, nor do I want the author to die on me. (I made an exception for the Malazan books, because there was no way I could catch up with Erikson.) For one more, I generally prefer to wrap up one series by an author before starting into another. As it is, I am one book into The Long Price Quartet and three into The Expanse (whoops – there’s another exception), so Dagger and Coin was just going to have to wait. I had not planned on the inimitable Carl V., from Stainless Steel Droppings, organizing a group read of volume one of this very series. Coming on the heels of the very long, but maybe not epic 1Q84 read-along, it might have been wise to blow this one off. I’ve grown attached to these blogosphere events however, with that chance to meet new friends, talk about books my wife and kids are not the least bit interested in, read things I might not have seen otherwise, and learn a little more about the SFF world.

Carl hosted the event here, as a Goodreads group. (I think that anyone can read, regardless of status. If not, I’m sure Carl will let any interested folks in. It is a read-along though, not a review collection, so everything is quite spoilery.) He is also posting his own review here, as well as a list of other participating bloggers. So, assuming that the gentle reader didn’t just come from said list, I recommend checking it out for a veritable plethora of Dan Abraham goodness. Because there are more traditional reviews aplenty, I will use this post to dig a little deeper into topics explored in the read-along, highlighting some things I found most interesting in the book. Some of this will rehash stuff I brought up in discussion, but hopefully I can make this both more organized and more intelligent.

I enjoy the solid political and economic foundation present in many of Abraham’s stories. I am known to compare him to L.E. Modesitt, Jr., another SFF practitioner with tastes close to my own. Modesitt tends more towards the political however, as befits someone with his DC background, while Abraham, an admitted armchair economist, dabbles more in the money and trade side of things. Dragon’s Path features a banker as a viewpoint character, so it necessarily follows that money is at the heart of this story. Unlike A Shadow in Summer, where the economy is crucial to the plot but stays in the background, Cithrin and her bank are front and center, though the actual banking bit is less important than the character. (For those that didn’t notice, Shadow‘s entire plot hinges on the concept of competitive advantage, a basic tenet of macroeconomics. This sort of “learned it in college but forgot” information is masked by the magic that generates said competitive advantage.)

Abraham’s inclinations toward politico-economic realities add a dimension to his world building that is often glossed over. I imagine that most readers don’t notice this sort of thing, but those of us with the requisite training are liable to sit there thinking, “Now how is the king paying for this army? Where do they get their food? What’s up with this giant city just sitting here, surrounded by nothing?” For us, Abraham is like a cool, refreshing glass of water. In this book, the usual Abraham craft is enhanced by the history he creates. Most of it is left to the imagination, but the past empire, ruled by the dragons that created the thirteen human races, left roads and landmarks, and finally destroyed themselves in a war of some sort, is something I want to know more about. There are just enough hints to tantalize, leaving us hoping that more detail unfolds in later books. This has to rate as one of my favorite fantasy back stories.

More fun comes from the main characters. I would guess that Marcus, the mercenary with a troubled past, and Geder, the vengeful nerd, attract most of the attention. The first, because he is a popular archetype, and the second, because he is rather like what many of us would be, if (SPOILER ALERT) we got really pissed off about people giving us crap for liking books and burned an entire city to the ground. (SPOILERS OVER) The smart money is on me cheering for Cithrin, since one might assume that I have a soft spot for attractive, female, finance experts. I will neither confirm nor deny this accusation, but must confess that the character that most interested me is d) none of the above. Oddly enough, it is Dawson that wins my favor, or at least my interest.

This is not to say that I like him. Dawson is exactly the sort of reactionary, arrogant noble that is usually reserved for villainous roles. Instead, he is a point of view character, initially sympathetic, and full of those virtues one generally cheers for: honor, loyalty, valor, etc. He is also completely on the wrong side of history, as we come to see that he is opposing what most of us modern-day types would encourage as egalitarian and democratic. Within a few chapters, Dawson is facing down a faction that would improve the lot of peasants and bring a certain amount of necessary political and economic reform to an increasingly untenable kingdom. And yet, he is not Bad, even if he is hardly Good. Abraham sidesteps any such simple dichotomy, instead merely portraying the ongoing machinations from Dawson’s perspective. I suppose this is mostly fun for contrarian me because I can easily imagine how tied up some readers will be. We Americans in particular are vulnerable to both the airs of nobility (ROYAL WEDDING!!!!) and popular uprisings (FREEEEDOOOOM!), leaving us nicely skewered by a character who tweaks both of these.

I will definitely continue reading this series. The Long Price Quartet is going to take priority, both because it is a completed work and because right now I like it a bit more. I prefer unconventional fantasy to the standard, epic variety, no matter how skilled the latter, but not every reader is going to agree with me. I am intensely curious to see what happens to everyone though, to see what sorts of horrific evil are hinted at in the prologue, and to find out more about the vanished dragon empire. Abraham is one of the best fantasy writers working right now, so I owe it to myself to consume it all.